San Francisco Stars #5: Bartlett Stygian Wake Coffee Barrel Russian Imperial Stout, a Hell of a good beer from San Francisco, California
Date: July 2 , 2019 —
The Story— Bartlett Hall is a restaurant, bar and brewery located a short walk from San Francisco’s Union Square. From their website, you might think the brewery was something of an afterthought and it does have to compete with a management operating a full scale restaurant and a “laid back” guesthouse next door. That there were only four beers of theirs on tap and multiple guest beers only added to our skepticism.
The brewer, Nick Mamere, knows what he’s doing, though. The Blonde Ale was passable, and, as advertised, crushable if you don’t stop to taste it, an IPA was a good commendable example of a West Coast standard, the porter was even a notch better than that, and our beer of the day was nothing short of masterful.
Russian Imperial Stouts originated when British brewers tried to brew a beer that would capture the fancy of the booze sodden Imperial Court of Russia. It didn’t work. A slow drunk compared to the Vodka of choice, its heaviness got in the way of gorging during long weekends of non-stop bingeing. It sure was better than much of the stuff the British were swilling, and despite a decline the style hung on through the late 20th century and has surged with the growth of craft brewing on both sides of the Atlantic.
The foundation of the beer is so solid that it makes a tempting base to add on the flavor of the day. Some addititves get silly, but coffee tends to blend with the dark malt and serve as a spice rather than a prime flavor. Unless it’s aged in a sour barrel, it’s hard to mess up this so-in-your-face exuberance of a beer style. Nevertheless, only a handful of brewers manage to domesticate the wild animal flavors of wood, whiskey, powerfully dark roast and coffee.
The style can be very close to a gimmick, but Mamere gets it spot-on right and produces an absolute sipping delight. I know of the Greek mythological river Styx that runs through the darkness of the underworld, but had never heard the adjectival form “Stygian” to refer to something impenetrably black. Ellie, of course, knew the term right away proving again that you have to be really smart to be a scientific editor… or a brewer.
The Beer– Very very rich with chocolate, coffee and black patent malt in Stygian waves that stream steadily toward a creamy, long lasting, and so very satisfying aftertaste. Some toffee and caramel jump on the raft in later sips– and hell or no hell, everyone is enjoying this ride.
it was Ellie’s highest rated beer this year — she pointed out that the fullness of the aroma and the richness of the beer mean that you could happily spend 20 minutes on a five ounce pour.
Value — Excellent. But a “steal” doesn’t mean it comes cheap. Barrel aged beers are expensive to make and often go for what the market will bear. Here, $8.50 for less than a half pint seems like a high price, but we’ve seen beers that were not nearly this good push triple figures in retail liquor stores.
Values: “fair” is a good beer at an above market price, “good” is worth the money, “very good” is a bargain, and “excellent” is a steal.
We just got back from a week in San Francisco. We hadn’t been there in eleven years and the remarkably vibrant beer scene we experienced then has become, well, even vibranter. Ellie, poor girl, had to work long hours during the day while I got to roam the streets checking out the best places to find great beers. At least when Ellie got off work I had places to take her before she crashed for the night. We’ll post a week or two of Beers of the Day by the Bay before returning to research for our book on Inns and Breweries of the Mid-Atlantic.
Interestingly, the downtown area of San Francisco, while awash with beers from the surrounding areas, has few brewing spots of its own. In that regard it reminds us of New York, where you have to leave Manhattan and go to Brooklyn to really find a nest of breweries. Away from downtown, several brewery taps thrive and public transportation gets you almost anywhere. Beyond the city limits, of breweries ring the city, and many of them produce exceptionally good beers and the myriad of tap houses all over town tend to focus on local beers. Name the style you like and you can find an excellent version of it, though at a price.
We’re often asked to share our tasting notes on over 33,000 beers; this blog is in answer to those requests. Not all our notes, though. The great beer writer Michael Jackson admirably followed the Thumper Rule, and we’ll try to do the same. (“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nuthin’ at all.”) All the beers we post are from the top half of our ratings and most are from the top quarter. Of greater value, we think, are the stories behind the beers, and we try to give you enough about the brewery, the style and the places to find great beer to help you on your own beer journeys. At CulturAle Press we try to write books and publish posts that will help you “Drink Well and Travel Safely.”